Vertical search top of mind at ABM Top Management Meeting

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Vertical search was clearly the hot topic at this week’s ABM’s Top Management Meeting in Chicago, as publishers pondered how best to use their industry knowledge to create tailored search domains for their markets.

There seemed to be a consensus that vertical search represents a significant opportunity, giving b-to-b media companies a way to compete with the general-purpose search engines—such as Google, and Yahoo! and—for search advertising dollars.

Two months ago, in fact, ABM created a search committee, chaired by James Casella, vice chairman of Reed Business.

“We’re beyond ‘Google—friend or enemy?’ ” Casella said, referring to the ongoing debate about whether major search engines are taking online advertising revenue away from media companies. “Now, it’s how to use search and how to monetize it.” He said the goal of the committee was to “open up the membership’s eyes to search.”

Casella said Reed has two vertical search pilots of its own under way, one for construction and the other for electronics. Working with Norway-based Fast FTP Search, the beta vertical search engines will be launched in the first quarter of next year and will offer advertisers contextual ad placements via Google’s AdSense program. “People will come to us because we will provide more relevant results,” Casella said.

At the session “Vertical Search: Is This The Next Big Revenue Opportunity?” Mike DeLuca, director of business development at Advanstar Communications, told how his company had created two vertical engines—one for dentists and the other for veterinarians—offering advertisers exclusive sponsorship of categories, as well as keyword advertising.

The Advanstar sites were built by SearchChannel, a company that has built vertical search engines for several b-to-b publishing clients. Media companies bring a deep knowledge of their markets, said SearchChannel President Bill Furlong, adding that this expertise positions them well for creating vertical search products.

Furlong, however, does not advise shutting out search engines like Google totally. “Let them index your content—but only to a point,” he said. Furlong also challenged the audience to make investments in vertical search infrastructure. “If you don’t do it, someone else will,” he said.

Chuck Richard, VP and lead analyst at consultancy Outsell Inc., agreed there was a need for vertical search and that publishers were well-positioned. He pointed to statistics showing that users were “frustrated” with general-purpose search engines and were somewhat less reliant on these engines than they were five years ago.

But Richard also cautioned that vertical search was only part of the mix.

“Search and browsing will play a diminished role as the Web evolves to a publish-and-subscribe model,” he said, as users increasingly rely on technologies such as RSS subscriptions to aggregate content. The so-called Web 2.0 will “nibble away” at the vertical search opportunity over the next two to three years, he said.

Panelist Spencer Spinnell, head of business and industrial markets at Google, stressed that the search company seeks to partner with publishers and help them drive traffic and monetize “niche advertisers and content.” Asked by an audience member if there was any technical reason why Google could not create vertical engines for, say, dentists and veterinarians, Spinnell answered that he was not in Google’s engineering department.

But both SearchChannel’s Furlong and Outsell’s Richard maintained that despite Google’s technical prowess, publishers have a good platform for vertical products. “Vertical search is about applying your rich industry domain expertise, not just spidering Web sites,” Richard said.

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